Here’s a story you’ve probably heard before, more than a few times. First, a researcher releases a study comparing the performance of charter and non-charter public schools (in this case, Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby and her colleagues’ report showing substantially higher gains for students who won charter slots in NYC’s lotteries vs. those lotteried out.) Then, charter proponents and critics square off on the op-ed pages about the results (in this case, see Albany charter school ringleader Tom Carroll vs. NYU education historian Diane Ravitch.)
If all of this seems a little unsatisfying, here’s why. Say you set out to improve your mother’s beloved spaghetti sauce recipe (treading on even more sacred ground than public education!) You try ten different variations. Despite your best efforts, three are worse than the original. Five are no better, but two are markedly superior. On average, the new batches are a little worse than your mom’s. But—would you say your experiment was a failure, or a success?
It really depends on what you do next. It’s a failure if, the next ten times you make spaghetti, you cook the same 10 trial recipes. But what if instead you avoid the eight bad and OK recipes, make more of the two good ones, and try more new recipes that build on the ones that pleased your palate? Your average experiment in round 1 was a “failure,” but your average meal going forward is going to be pretty tasty.
You can debate (and we’re sure you will!) whether charter schools match the 3-5-2 distribution in the spaghetti story—we’re not claiming those are the right numbers. But whatever the exact spread, the basic pattern applies—and so success or failure of chartering depends on what policymakers and sector leaders do next. Will we vigorously scale-up and replicate schools that work? Launch a new round of experiments that learn from the lessons so far? Close or “Try, Try Again” with the ones that haven’t measured up? Bon appétit.
—Guestbloggers Bryan and Emily Hassel